On ViewPaul Rodgers / 9w Gallery
October 4 – December 29, 2012
From afar it looks like an Abstract Expressionist painting: a large triptych with a textured off-white surface imprinted, in part, with a floral motif and dotted with over a dozen irregular shapes—trapezoids, triangles, would-be pentagons—rising elegantly from the surface.
Get up close, however, and the painting reveals itself to be an intricate collage layered with paint, fabric, lace, embroidery, wood, cardboard, and other materials. Much of the fabric comes from shrouds and shirts. Some of it looks like the gauze used to bandage wounds. Long passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian creation myth, and from the International Committee of the Red Cross’s ICRC 2004 report on the treatment of prisoners of war in Baghdad have been typed out onto columns of linen.
Take a step back again and the scattered shapes call to mind the rough outline of the map of Iraq ubiquitous across media reports on the war over the past decade. The off-white, now no longer a random choice of color, emerges instead as an expanse of sand, a desert landscape.
The painting, called “Exit Strategy” (2009 – 2012), is one of 21 new works by the South-African American artist Peter Sacks currently on view at the Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery in Chelsea. Hung on the wall opposite the gallery entrance and slightly obscured from view by a pillar, “Exit Strategy” is the first painting to meet the eye as one enters the show. Its title, its motifs, and the inclusion of the ICRC report carry a clear and overt political message.
Yet, “Exit Strategy” is not so much about failed policies in Iraq, as it is an elegy for the country and the suffering of its people. The gauzy fabric in the painting poignantly speaks to this. As does the floral-patterned lace that emerges and recedes from the surface, recalling a tablecloth and the intimacy of a family dinner—of the ordinary lives and the comforting ordinariness of life that war disrupts.
Far from a mere aesthetic choice, Sacks’s technique of collage and overwhelming use of textiles is what is truly political about his work. In the same way that his paintings upend our aesthetic expectations—transforming appealing abstract visual landscapes into intricate collages messy with emotion and dense with narrative—they also force us to reconsider what we mean when we speak of politics and the political. What, after all, is the polity, but the collection of individuals that make up the state? Sacks turns the viewer’s gaze to individual human life and experience. They are, of course, why politics ultimately matter.
The materials that Sacks uses over and over again, the work and prison shirts, the shrouds, the buttons and thread, the bits of embroidery and lace, all convey a tenderness and an intimacy with the human body and the hand. They are what remains when the body is long gone serving as poignant reminders to the individual lives lost and the anguish endured. The textiles themselves often bear the marks of distress, as Sacks burns their edges, rips and otherwise marks them, and then partially or wholly buries them within his paintings.
There is a cuff and part of a sleeve visible in the upper right-hand corner of “Six by Six: Gettysburg: The Living” (2011 – 2012), a painting embedded with letters from U.S. Civil War soldiers. Stretched out tautly to the corner of the canvas, it evokes an outstretched arm: perhaps reaching for help, perhaps already flung back on the ground in death. Or perhaps it is the mute gesture of the dead, whose voices can now only be heard through their letters, if at all. The button on the cuff conveys a particular intimacy as it marks the way in beyond the fabric to the skin.
The shirt collar, too, often appears as a central motif in a Sacks painting rising up in relief from the background. In “Six by Six: Checkpoint 2” (2010 – 2012), a painting embedded with excerpts from the Geneva Conventions and Red Cross reports, the burnt and distressed collar of a denim work shirt is clearly visible. Its stiff arc evokes the neck, a place tender to human touch, and the back, so suggestive of human labor.
As a native of South Africa, Sacks is also very much concerned with African history. Four of the paintings on view are from a series called Migration. In “Migration 33” (2011 – 2012) two thin arced lines of raised fabric emerging from a nearly flat off-white background evoke a small band of people wandering across a vast desert, as seen from afar. The vulnerability created by this simple artistic gesture is affecting.
In creating each of his paintings, Sacks painstakingly types or handwrites the texts embedded in his work onto linen fabric. The process takes him months and registers as another, if slightly more subtle, political element in his art: Sacks’s commitment to the slow work of the hand in an era of digital enhancements and high speed. Moreover, much of the textiles, lace, and embroidery in Sacks’s paintings are handmade materials originating in the 18th and 19th centuries and purchased in junk shops in Normandy, France.
“I see my paintings as a cross between cave paintings, medieval frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, and late 20th-century abstract paintings,” says Sacks, “The show is about survival. It is about what endures.”